6th Dec 2023

Labour unrest expected to fuel summer travel chaos

  • This summer, flight demand will increase by 15 percent, according to Eurocontrol. (Photo: Unsplash)
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Three years after the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, accompanied by quarantines and travel restrictions, air passenger traffic is nearing full recovery.

After the Easter holiday surge, traffic was only 7.6 percent lower than pre-pandemic levels. Eurocontrol, the European air traffic management body, projects a 15 percent rise in demand this summer.

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  • “It is just not an attractive sector to work in anymore,” said ETF head of aviation. (Photo: Unsplash)

The pressing question is whether the industry can accommodate this surge in demand or if it will repeat the previous summer's chaos, marked by numerous cancellations, delays, and mountains of baggage accumulating at airports across Europe.

The key factor behind the disruption last summer was a staff shortage, a result of layoffs during the air travel downturn. Consequently, the wave of passengers far exceeded European airports and airlines' capacity.

This year, apart from the continuing shortages, particularly in the air traffic control sector, there are fears that worker strikes could trigger a snowball effect similar to 2022.

Last month, the International Air Transport Association (IATA) flagged that "labour unrest, particularly in France, is a cause for concern" in a press release last May.

Transport Commissioner Adina Vălean has urged member states to anticipate and prepare for the disruptions that potential industrial action could cause this summer.

When workers are mentioned, it's typically in reference to their scarcity.

The European Transport Workers' Federation (ETF) identifies this as the root of the problem.

The decline in working conditions is driving employees to consider more appealing sectors or to exercise their right to strike for improved pay and conditions.

And at times of high demand and increased flight numbers, such as the summer, the industry suffers the consequences of this labour unrest.

The upcoming summer will be an improvement over the last, but not good, according to the CEO of German airline Lufthansa. "It will be the worst summer in terms of flight delays," stated Carsten Spohr at the Airlines for Europe (A4E) summit in Brussels in March.

Increased demand, potential industrial action, and airspace restrictions due to Russia's war against Ukraine, along with other industry challenges, compound the situation.

ETF's Head of Aviation, Eoin Coates, doubts the industry can timely address the genuine causes of industrial unrest.

Airlines have reduced flight frequencies to mitigate the chaos of last summer, decreasing the need to hire more staff.

But this is a stopgap measure because one of the root causes of this unrest is the failure to retain staff, Coates told EUobserver.

Circumstances vary by country and staff type. Countries like Spain and Greece have managed to retain their workforce thanks to temporary protection schemes. However, in other places, staff have left and, in many cases, haven't returned, especially among ground staff.

"They are now competing with sectors like tourism and hospitality because their conditions have been reduced so much," Coates adds. "It's simply no longer an attractive sector to work in."

The situation is similar for cabin crew. Lack of labor and social legislation have resulted in insecure self-employment contracts, endless shifts, and insufficient social protection, not to mention inadequate pay.

"Wages have become a pandemic," Xavier Gautier, the General Secretary of the European Cabin Crew Association, told EUobserver. "The profession is not attractive to young people either."

Gautier notes that wage stagnation is not a new issue and that the business models of certain transnational airlines exploit European regulatory loopholes to minimize costs — often at the expense of salaries.

For air traffic management (ATM) staff, which encompasses more than just air traffic controllers, the situation is even worse.

They are in short supply, and without them, flights cannot operate.

Air traffic controllers require about 18 months of training. Training halted during the pandemic, and the fallout is now evident across Europe, from Denmark to France and Ireland, where delays have occurred due to this shortage.

Among the considered solutions is relocating staff from one European country to another, but the ETF asserts that this is insufficient, as eventually, the entire EU will face the same problem. Additionally, attracting air traffic controllers from outside Europe is unviable due to unattractive working conditions.

Lobbyists propose curbing the escalation of industrial action as the solution to prevent another chaotic summer travel season.

While A4E does not comment on "specific labour issues," they write to EUobserver, they have forwarded demands to the Commission a few weeks ago. They urge support for mandatory arbitration by member states to safeguard overflights and mandate 21 days' notice for strikes, among other points.

However, the right to strike primarily falls under national, not EU, jurisdiction.

"In reality, they are fighting the wrong battle," concludes Coates.

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